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According to Hollywood Reporter news items, "The Gentleman from Montana" (an unpublished story by Lewis R. Foster, alternately called "The Gentleman from Wyoming" by both contemporary and modern sources) was originally purchased by Columbia as a vehicle for Ralph Bellamy, with Harold Wilson slated to produce. Once Frank Capra became the director, the project, planned as a sequel to Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, was entitled Mr. Deeds Goes to Washington, and was to star Gary Cooper, reprising his role as Deeds. Cooper was unavailable for the role, however, and James Stewart was borrowed from M-G-M.
Information in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library indicates that in January 1938, both Paramount and M-G-M submitted copies of Lewis' story to the PCA for approval. Responding to a Paramount official, PCA Director Joseph I. Breen cautioned: "we would urge most earnestly that you take serious counsel before embarking on the production of any motion picture based on this story. It looks to us like one that might well be loaded with dynamite, both for the motion picture industry, and for the country at large." Breen especially objected to "the generally unflattering portrayal of our system of Government, which might well lead to such a picture being considered, both here, and more particularly abroad, as a covert attack on the Democratic form of government." A June 1938 internal PCA memo indicates that Rouben Mamoulian was interested in directing the film for Columbia. No other information about the involvement of Paramount, M-G-M or Mamoulian has been found. Breen warned Columbia that the picture needed to emphasize that "the Senate is made up of a group of fine, upstanding citizens, who labor long and tirelessly for the best interests of the nation," as opposed to "Senator Joseph Paine" and his cohorts. After the script had been rewritten, Breen wrote a letter to Will H. Hays in which he stated: "It is a grand yarn that will do a great deal of good for all those who see it and, in my judgment, it is particularly fortunate that this kind of story is to be made at this time. Out of all Senator Jeff's difficulties there has been evolved the importance of a democracy and there is splendidly emphasized the rich and glorious heritage which is ours and which comes when you have a government 'of the people, by the people, and for the people.'"
According to contemporary sources, Capra and his crew went to Washington, D.C. to film background material and to study the Senate Chamber, which was replicated, full scale, in precise detail on the Columbia lot. James D. Preston, who was Capra's technical advisor for the Senate set and political protocol, was a former superintendent of the Senate press gallery. A July 1, 1939 Hollywood Reporter news item noted that the Warner Bros. "New York Street set" was used, during which 1,000 extras were present. The film's program describes a slightly different ending than that viewed, in which "Jefferson Smith" and "Saunders" return to his hometown after the filibuster and are cheered in a big parade. It is implied that "Jeff" and "Saunders" are married and are either starting a family or are planning to. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington won an Academy Award for Best Original Story, and was nominated for Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Supporting Actor (Harry Carey and Claude Rains), Art Direction, Music, Editing and Sound. Stewart, who was nominated for Best Actor, won the New York Film Critics' Circle Award for best actor. The film was also among New York Times and Film Daily's best films of 1939.
There is controversy surrounding the reception of the film at its Washington, D.C. premiere, which was sponsored by the National Press Club. While contemporary sources do not specifically state that some senators walked out during the screening, as Capra asserts in his autobiography, some sources note that there was a highly negative reaction to the film, both on the part of Congress and the Washington press. The senatorial attack on the film was lead by Senate Majority Leader Alben W. Barkley, who called it "silly and stupid," and said it "makes the Senate look like a bunch of crooks." Some contemporary sources stated that some senators pressed for passage of the Neely Anti-Block Booking Bill (which in the late 1940s led to the breakup of the studio-owned theater chains) in retaliation for the damage they felt Hollywood had inflicted upon the Senate's reputation. In reply, Columbia released a special program containing favorable reviews that stressed the film's patriotism and support of democracy.
In his autobiography, Capra states that after the film's general release, he and Harry Cohn received a cablegram from Joseph P. Kennedy, the U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain, saying that the film would damage "America's prestige in Europe" and should therefore be withdrawn from European distribution. In response, they mailed favorable reviews of the film to Kennedy, and, while in a letter to Capra, Kennedy stated that he maintained doubts about the film, he did not pursue the matter any further. According to New York Times, "the Boy Scouts of America objected to having any part in Mr. Capra's reform movement," and Capra therefore had to use the fictitious name of the Boy Rangers. In later interviews, Capra and Stewart both revealed that in order for Stewart to achieve the required hoarseness during the filibuster scenes, his throat was periodically swabbed with mercuric chloride. In his autobiography, Capra says that he originally offered the role of the President of the Senate to Edward Ellis, who turned it down. Capra credits Joseph Sistrom, Harold Winston and Chester Sticht with showing him the synopsis of "The Gentleman from Montana," and also with assisting in casting the 186 speaking parts in the film.
In 1941, Columbia was sued by Louis Ullman and Norman Houston, both of whom claimed that Mr. Smith was plagiarized from their respective written works. Lewis Foster testified that he wrote the story specifically for Gary Cooper, and Capra testified that he had seen only the synopsis of Foster's story and had intended to use it as a sequel to Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. Columbia won the case. In 1953, screenwriter Sidney Buchman was fined $150 and received a one-year suspended sentence after he was convicted of contempt of Congress when he failed to honor a subpoena to appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. In 1960, Buchman stated that he was blacklisted after this incident. There was an ABC television series during the 1962-63 season based on the film, starring Fess Parker. In 1977, United Artists released a remake of the film, entitled Billy Jack Goes to Washington, directed by and starring Tom Laughlin and produced by Frank Capra, Jr. According to Hollywood Reporter news items, in 1949 Columbia intended but never did produce Bill Bowers' sequel, Mr. Smith Starts a Riot, and in 1952 Columbia considered a remake of the original film starring Jane Wyman in Stewart's role.